Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2002) 260-272
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Tragic Conflict and Greatness of Character
IT IS A SURPRISING FACT that some of our best literary examples of greatness of character are of persons acting in a way that involves them in a terrible burden of guilt. As spectators we perceive Oedipus, in Sophocles's Oedipus the King, 1 as one who upon discovering the identity of his father and mother affirms that he bears guilt for killing the former and committing incest with the latter, and we typically concur in some vague way with his affirmation. 2 We do not, after all, think that his affirmation is merely the consequence of some confusion about morals on his part, and that he would have been more justified in treating his discovery with a light conscience. Furthermore, it seems that our conception of his greatness is intimately bound up with our being acquainted with him as someone who acted so as to render himself profoundly guilty in this way. What is paradoxical is that moral taint would be expected to reduce our admiration for a character and our attribution of greatness to it. Why then should noteworthy paradigms of greatness of character be morally tainted characters? Can we make sense of the idea that some kinds of guiltiness might be constitutive of greatness of character?
As it is well-known, Aristotle says that in order for a tragedy best to achieve its desired effect, it should portray a protagonist "who is not pre-eminent in moral virtue, who passes to bad fortune not through vice or wickedness, but because of some hamartia . . . ." 3 The term "hamartia" is variously translated as "piece of ignorance," "miscalculation," and "error of judgment," but as O. B. Hardison notes, it must be treated as designating a moral flaw, because it renders the protagonist [End Page 260] less than "pre-eminent in moral virtue." 4 However, even if the term is interpreted as covering what I have described as the moral taint associated with greatness of character, it should be clear that Aristotle does not provide here an answer to my question. At best he can be viewed as explaining why morally tainted characters of this sort are crucial to achieving tragic effect. He is not explaining how it is that such characters can be viewed as paradigms of greatness.
I propose not to treat this paradox in its most general form, but rather by confining my attention to an interesting subclass of cases. What I have in mind are cases in which a protagonist finds himself or herself in what I shall call circumstances of tragic conflict. Such circumstances determine that a choice must be made between two (or perhaps more) courses of action, even though each of the courses involves the violation of an important moral claim, or the destruction of a crucial value. As spectators or readers, we typically perceive the protagonist as emerging with a heavy burden of guilt (much in the way noted above regarding Oedipus), and we recognize that he or she was bound to emerge guilty, no matter which course of action would have been chosen. Cases such as that of Agamemnon (bearing guilt for the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia in Aeschylus's Agamemnon), 5 of Jephthah (again bearing guilt for the sacrifice of his daughter, in Judges 11), 6 and of Orestes (bearing guilt for the murder of his mother Clytemnestra in Euripides's Orestes) 7 belong quite uncontroversially to this subclass. 8
These protagonists make difficult choices, and carry them out with courage and resolution, qualities which explain to some extent our perception of them as possessing greatness of character. But in making their choice, they necessarily render themselves guilty, whether or not they have made the correct choice (assuming there is a correct choice in the circumstances). And we sense that suffering the peculiarly poignant pain which accompanies their guilty action is at least partly constitutive of their greatness. Clearly, we are faced again with the paradox of the association of guilt with greatness of character.